A wise and dear friend once said, ‘You’re always more careful to choose who you trust’.
And indeed, particularly in the realm of sustainable fashion, ethical fashion, responsible innovation, or whatever you’d like to call it, this statement is more pertinent than ever.
In May of 2018 I joined a small team of young people with the intention of understanding how a clothing company positioning itself in the sustainable apparel and home-goods sector operates, whilst making some money in exchange for my labor.
I trusted the company enough to devote my time, and go for the ride; but as with any marketing strategy with arguably enigmatic slogans such as, ‘It’s not what we do but how we do it’ or ‘We bring productions back to the original makers’ (what does this really mean and what constitutes an original maker?), there is potential for such statements to blind the public in a state of well-meaning confusion, especially when a significant majority of today’s shoppers in the sustainable fashion realm are among the type decked out in their certified Fair-Trade boho-chic garments and prayer beads they bought from some old woman in Bali; shoppers so eager to buy anything that uses helping brown people in both rural and urban communities in the Global South as their main evangelistic marketing strategy.
An ‘original maker’ in Tamil Nadu posing with a finished product.
As a young man with long hair, I was a ‘bro’ and ‘dude’ at the company. I had the privilege of being treated as a ‘bro’ at the company. I was invited to speak at sustainable fashion conferences, flown to LA, and given responsibilities to help edit content on the new company website. In my short time at IOAN, I was given more opportunities than my equally if not more able and brilliant co-workers who happened to be female, and had been working at the company for more than double the amount of time I had been there. Leadership at Industry of All Nations (IOAN) was, and remains to be, sexist.
I am not one to bad-mouth other people, but there is a clear line between hostile bad-mouthing and constructive criticisms grounded in evidence.
IOAN leadership is very much ego-driven. The company brands itself as design based entity helping to solve many of the world’s environmental and socio-political issues, without addressing its own problems. Throughout my time at IOAN, my colleagues and I would openly express our frustrations: Polyester (plastic) thread used in IOAN clothing, not knowing how much suppliers in India are paid to make a t-shirt, and being told not to deposit our humble pay checks when we received them on more than 5 occasions, for there not being enough money in the company account and that our checks will bounce if deposited when received. At the same time, we knew the company was quietly building IOAN branded homes in Argentina and Joshua Tree, and that our San Francisco store alone was making at least $30,000 dollars in revenue on average per month.
Example of an IOAN Private Housing Project in Argentina
Yes, of course companies go through troubled periods where certain things need to be tweaked and adjusted, but such troubles should not break California’s legal requirements of paying your staff on time, let alone giving them a day off.
IOAN operates off manipulating young, energetic, naive individuals, who believe that by working for IOAN, they are part of a family helping create a more sustainable future, even if they aren’t paid on time, aren’t paid 100 overtime hours , and even if they have to take thousands of dollars out of their own pocket to pay sweater suppliers, because company finances are not managed properly.
Upon realising that my own values of transparency, integrity, and wholehearted communication, most importantly within the space of sustainability, were not values that IOAN shared, I gracefully exited the company in November of 2018, whilst with a Sharpie pen at hand on the San Francisco shop’s cardboard store walls (that were going to soon be replaced anyways), made a few immediate adjustments of my own, because even though the boss said we would make changes to such slogans, he was taking too long: ‘Industry of All Nations brings productions back to
original makers THE PEOPLE!’. (I also added a much needed apostrophe and word ‘only’ plus a comma to ‘Its not what we do but how we do it’, becoming, ‘It’s not only what we do, but how we do it’. The final product is ‘what’ actually sells and keeps a business running, and quite frankly, how IOAN is doing things isn’t actually true to its projected brand image.
As an aside, I was constantly encouraged by the IOAN boss that being a ‘rebel’ was a good thing, and was told by the boss himself that that he had ‘complete trust’ in me for how the store should look. Of course, being a terrible communicator, IOAN boss tells my female colleague and dear friend that I should be fired for writing on our cardboard walls that we replaced that same day anyways.
As another aside, a boss that bad-mouths his current employees to his other current employees is no leader whatsoever, but a child.
Shortly after I exited, our then head of operations, the only woman who actually really put in the work to keep the company professionally organised and operational despite being the only woman at the bro-dominant head quarters, also exited, without the boss even batting an eye. She was soon replaced by another ‘bro’.
What led me to write this post however, was the sheer injustice of my dear friend and female colleague being manipulated to work 5 months straight as an hourly employee at the IOAN San Francisco store, being paid $20 an hour, with not a single full day off except for New Year’s and Christmas day when the store was actually closed. She would show up to work with body pains, being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and just sucked it up, under the pressure of needing to earn money to pay rent on time. She would have to sneakily vomit in the garbage can underneath the shop counter whilst customer’s were in the fitting rooms- yet as soon as her head came up, you wouldn’t even know she was feeling ill from fatigue and fibromyalgia pains unless you actually knew her. She’s a soldier for sure.
Yet, even under California law, she was not offered paid sick leave after her 90 days of being a full time employee, nor a day of rest at least once a work week, nor was she paid overtime.
These are serious offences breaking California Labor Law. And for a company that holds itself up by telling the world it’s helping make the world a better place? I cannot allow such a dishonest representation of what ‘sustainable fashion’ means. Never advertise what you’re not actually doing.
I posted a message directed to Industry of All Nation’s Instagram account, which is managed by IOAN’s boss.
I tried viewing the IOAN Instagram profile the same day after posting my sentiments onto my Instagram story, and it seems that I was blocked.
That says a lot.
The people and leaders that open up to you, that openly accept and are aware of their own short-comings, the people that are brutally honest with themselves- these are the people you know you can trust. Please be careful, and speak up when it feels the most uncomfortable.